NRI ACHIVERS – II MIRA NAIR
An Indian lady
born in the state of Orissa some time in the late fifties, involved in doing political protest theater in the streets of Delhi in the Seventies – eventually works her way up to the International moviedom and has to her credit, apart from innumerable prestigious movie awards, the distinction of directing top rated Hollywood actors of the likes of Uma Thurman, Denzel Washington and Reese Witherspoon among others !
For others, it may be a fairy-tale, but for Mira – it has been a pleasant reality. Always buoyed by the rebel within her, she has dared to dream and excelled to achieve. We are talking about the irrepressible and celebrated yet controversial American director of Indian-origin Mira Nair – who certainly lives by her own rules. Otherwise, how could anyone explain her decision to spurn the offer to direct the celluloid version of the fourth book of J K Rowling’s best-selling adventures series Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – on the grounds that because she did not find it ‘creative enough’. “The prospect of working with special effects rather than flesh and blood and more importantly, spending three years in London is what put me off. Moreover, I do not like to take up a film which others with a similar creative talent can also make” is what Nair is believed to have said.
Just completed 49 years of age, Mira has traversed a long journey since her early days at Bhubaneswar, Orissa. Born to a civil servant father and a social worker mother, she was the youngest of three children from a middle-class Punjabi family. Mira first left her home town at 13 to attend an Irish Catholic missionary school in Simla. She went on to attend the University of New Delhi where she studied Sociology and Theater. It was at Delhi, that Mira became involved in political street theater and performed for three years in an amateur drama company in Delhi, working with director Barry John and later Joseph Chaikin of the Open Theater in New York. However, as far as the academics were concerned, she was dissatisfied with the quality of the education and hence left for the US in 1976 at age 19 with a full scholarship to study Theatre at Harvard University.
The theatre program at Harvard could not either satisfy her, as she felt that the theatre at the university was too conventional and too staid, compared to what she had done in India. Moreover, the lack of creativity as an actor made her feel incomplete. It was thus her inherent wish to don the mantle of the show and be in control – telling the story, controlling the light, the gesture and the frame, was what drew Mira Nair towards film making. She had once said, “I am an independent film-maker – first and foremost. I have always cut my own cloth. Creative freedom is imperative for me”. Rightly so !
Mira’s student work and her first independent films were documentaries exploring the culture and traditions of India and their impact on the lives of ordinary people. Her first film was Jama Masjid Street Journal (1979) which was also her Master’s thesis project – based on the life of a traditional Muslim community from the Western perspective. She found initial success as a documentary filmmaker, winning awards for So Far From India (1982) and India Cabaret (1985). The films got her Best Documentary prizes at the American Film Festival and New York’s Global Village Film Festival. Incidentally, for shooting India Cabaret – a study of strippers at a Bombay nightclub, a male customer who is a regular at the club, and his wife who stays at home – Mira decided to spend two months living with strippers in a Bombay nightclub.
Apart from the incipient struggle as a documentary filmmaker, Mira also had to face the disagreement of her family. They were not open to Mira making documentary films and in fact, were much disappointed by her decision to live with the strippers in the night club. It was only after Mira made her first feature film , got critical acclamation and was nominated for the Oscars, did they realized the potential of their prodigal daughter.
In 1987, Nair departed from documentary filmmaking. Building on her experience in theater and documentary film, Nair and her scriptwriter, Sooni Taraporevala, a college friend of Nair’s and a native of Bombay, conducted a three-month workshop with 30 street children who would ultimately perform in the feature film Salaam Bombay! This film, which was a realistic look at life on the streets in Bombay, gave Nair the taste of real success as Salaam Bombay! was nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It also won the Camera D’Or (for best first feature) and the Prix du Publique (for most popular entry) at the Cannes Film Festival as well as 25 other international awards
Not the one to sit on her laurels, Mira Nair continued her journey of film-making. Next on the roll was Mississippi Masala, an interracial love story set in the American South and Uganda, starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury – which ultimately won three awards at the Venice Film Festival including Best Screenplay and The Audience Choice Award. It was during the filming of this movie in Uganda, that Nair met her present husband Ugandan national Mahmood Mamdani. Then came The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat (1993), The Perez Family (1995) and the highly acclaimed yet universally controversial Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996). The film inspired by a Hindu erotic manual broke box-office records in Japan and the Far East, and was an art-house hit in America, but was initially banned in India. Legal battles over censorship of the film went to the Supreme Court.
While her subsequent films continued to earn accolades and and Kieslowski from the West; while Guru Dutt is a big favorite of hers among the Indians. She also draws inspiration from Writhik Ghatak and the inimitable Satyajit Ray. Mira’s projects are often a manifestation of her intense study of these famed directors. Her film Hysterical Blindness set in 1987s working class New Jersey, starring Uma Thurman, was released in 2002 as an HBO original film with 15 million audience – earning 3 Emmy awards and a Golden Globe for Thurman. Mira’s acceptance in the big league was vindicated when she joined a group of 11 world famous directors to direct a ‘one frame’ film 11.9.01 – a true story of a mother’s search for her son who did not return home on the fateful day of 9/11.
The last of her released film has been Vanity Fair (2004) – representation of William Thackeray classic set in Georgian England. It is believed that Resee Witherspoon, who played the main protagonist “Becky Sharp” herself called Mira for the role.
Mira Nair is presently working on the Booker prize winner writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” for which she has casted among others Konkana Sensharma , Abhishek Bachchan and Samuel Jackson. In addition to this film which is slated for a 2006 end release, Mira will be doing Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul for HBO, and Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist. Another interesting project in hand is the remake of the blockbuster Sanjay Dutt starrer Munnabhai MBBS in English as Gangsta M.D.
Owing to extremely busy professional life, Mira frequently travels between New York, her US home and South Africa, where her husband stays. However, the preoccupations do not deter Mira to enjoy the privilege of being a loving mother to her only son Zohran. In fact, Mira always has a special place for children. Most of her documentary films have children as the main protagonist. As she once had remarked “I always like to reveal the fact that the emperor has no clothes. And children are best at that. They teach us how to see the world in that sense. They are without artifice; they see it for what it is. I am drawn to that ruthless honesty.”
Apart from her engagements with direction, the talented film maker is in the process of establishing a film laboratory, Maisha, which will be dedicated to the support of visionary screenwriters and directors in East Africa and India. The first lab, which is only for screenwriters, will be launched in August 2005 in Kampala, Uganda. On the social front, Mira was appointed as the “Mentor” in film by the prestigious Rolex Protégé Arts Initiative, joining fellow mentors Jessye Norman, Sir Peter Hall, David Hockney, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Saburo Teshigawara to help guide young artists in critical stages of their development.
Today , Mira Nair is an epitome of success – a perfect example of what an Indian girl could be through her own enterprise. She may ‘think in English’, but deep down within she is very much an Indian. In all of her films, she makes it a point to cast Indian actors at appropriate position, often against the opposition of her financers. Mira puts it in this way,” I do have a private agenda, I suppose, to resist the cultural imperialism of Hollywood by putting people like ourselves on screen.
A multinational personality – Mira with her bases in India, South Africa, Uganda and the US is seen today as one of the most successful NRI – who believes in her abilities and have displayed to the world what grit and determination can make out of a person. So correct does she sounds when she says that the best thing an Indian American can do to showcase their motherland is ” to do our own work and put ourselves out there to validate the multiplicity of our presence”.
Hats off to Mira Nair !!!!!!!!